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The teams, storylines and pundits set to dominate as the Euros finally kick off

The craziest iteration of the tournament for the craziest of times, and it all kicks off tonight.

Image: PA

WELCOME TO THE European Championships, the first edition of the storied competition to be founded on the principle of “Yes this plan is crazy…so crazy that it just might work.”

As Michel Platini said when he announced eight years ago that the 2020 Euros would be staged in 13 countries across Europe: “It is perhaps a bit of a zany idea…but it is a good idea.”

The format was initially sold as a fitting sharing of the tournament on its 60th anniversary, but was truly a compromise given only Turkey were willing to stump up for a tournament on a continent still reeling from the financial crash. 

And as the tournament now finally dawns – a year late, cut from 13 to 12 and then ultimately 11 (our bad), and with Platini long since exiled from the game having been banned for taking a payment from Sepp Blatter – we realise that the truest founding motto of this tournament is that the plan is so crazy that it must work.

enda-kenny-and-john-delaney What might have been. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There’s simply too much money staked at this stage to do anything else, to the point that this competition is still officially known as Euro 2020, given that a whole lot of merch had already been made by the time the pandemic kicked things back a year. 

Not that these people getting paid is necessarily a bad thing. The Euros brings in money which flows right across Europe, though Uefa’s margin will be significantly less this time around than the monstrous €847 million profit they made on the tournament five years ago.

And Uefa sitting on cash reserves isn’t a bad thing if, say, a football association out there were to find itself beset by demented mismanagement and in need of an instant cash injection to stay afloat. 

At a glance, you can be forgiven for not being too stirred by these championships. The stadia will have limited attendance but, bar the Puskas Arena in Budapest, won’t be full; the pan-European stage robs the tournament of an identity; the 24-team format is bloated, and one that needs 36 group games to get rid of just eight teams and, as we saw five years ago, can crown a champion without needing to win a group game; there will be VAR; and the players will be knackered, sprinting into this tournament off the back of a historically draining season. 

And in a further blow to Europe’s hopes of being entertained this summer, Ireland won’t be there. Now that Dublin are out as hosts, the Irish involvement is limited to debating which to feel worse about: that Declan Rice and Jack Grealish are playing for England, or that Bono is singing the tournament’s official song.

(It hails the the unifying power of football and is called, erm, We Are The People.)

And yet, soon our licence fee will be powering North Macedonia versus Ukraine live on a Thursday afternoon and we will remember that a summer without a major tournament is still infinitely worse than a summer with a bad one. 

And there is enough talent across this tournament to suggest this may not be a bad one anyway. 

A frankly unfair portion of that talent is stacked in the France squad, who are pre-tournament favourites and arguably stronger than they were at the World Cup following the shock return of Karim Benzema.

The Real Madrid striker has been recalled to the squad having been frozen out since 2015 over his alleged involvement in blackmailing former teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape, charges which he denies. Benzema is now a doubt for the tournament having picked up an injury in the final warm-up game against Bulgaria, but no matter – Olivier Giroud came on and scored twice. 

Some international sides lack cohesion and can’t get the best out of their stars as a result, but France don’t really have that problem: N’Golo Kante makes Paul Pogba look a much better player, Giroud brings the best out of Antoine Griezmann, and, well Kylian Mbappe can do pretty much everything by himself. 

portugal-v-france-uefa-euro-2016-final-stade-de-france Cristiano Ronaldo with the trophy after Portugal's triumph five years ago. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

France have been handed a nasty group draw, however: the Group of Death with Euro 2016 winners Portugal, 2014 World champions Germany, and Hungary, who will play two of their games in front of a full house in Budapest. 

Since winning this tournament five years ago, Portugal have added Ruben Dias, Diogo Jota, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and Joao Cancelo to their squad but their attack will still be dominant by the increasingly sedentary form of Cristiano Ronaldo. If opposition teams want to grasp at straws, it will be difficult to fit many of the aforementioned attackers around Ronaldo. 

Germany are most in need of that straw-clutching, as Jogi Low takes charge of the national side for the final time before bowing out for Hansi Flick. His reign has curdled in recent years: out of the World Cup at the group phase, they come into this tournament off the back of a 6-0 thrashing by Spain and a shock loss to North Macedonia.

Low has recalled Mats Hummels and Thomas Muller, and perhaps the latter will have the tactical intelligence to fuse a disparate team of superb talents into a functional collective. He can also end a curious career stat: Muller has scored 10 goals at World Cups, but has never scored at a Euros. 

The runner up from this group will face the winner of Group C, which, on paper, looks most likely to be England.

Gareth Southgate earned acclaim – and Marks and Spencer’s record sales on waistcoats – at the 2018 World Cup for picking England’s way through an admittedly soft draw, but his job this time around is very different.

There has been an incredible spring of outrageous young talent since three years ago, when none of Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jason Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Reece James, Rice and Grealish were around. Southgate’s problem is many of these young talents play in similar positions, and with Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson injured, he lacks depth in key positions at centre-midfield and centre-back. 

Throw in the eternal uncertainty of Jordan Pickford and Southgate’s own conflicts as to his starting system, and England have a few problems to solve before they can start dreaming of football’s proximity to ‘home.’ 

Their home advantage throughout the bulk of the tournament also looks likely to be marred by the booing of the taking of the knee, a reaction that has not been condemned by Boris Johnson.

england-romania-soccer England players take a knee ahead of a friendly game with Romania. Source: Paul ELLIS

If England do go deep in the tournament, it will be interesting to see at what precise point the Brexiteer press veer from condemning the English players as no-good Marxist agitators to hailing them as bold emblems of the new post-Europe Britain. (If it comes to pass, a last-16 win over Germany is where I’m laying that bet.) 

Scotland, meanwhile, join England in Group D and are back at a tournament for the first since 1998, when the official song captured their unique sporting melancholy: Del Amitri sent them on their way by singing Don’t Come Home Too Soon. 

Given Scotland will play two group games in Glasgow and will base themselves at home for the duration of the tournament, they need not be worried about that this time around.

Plus, Steve Clarke has struck on a 3-5-2 to cram Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney into the same team, and their defensive structure might well carry them into the knockout stages. Goals have been a problem for Scotland, but they have recently naturalised Southampton’s Che Adams in the hope of solving that conundrum. 

Wales, meanwhile, can’t expect to emulate the last-four heroics of 2016, but can be said to have quite literally turned onto a new Page: Robert is stepping in for Ryan Giggs, who has stood aside as he awaits trial on assault charges. They have refreshed their squad from five years ago, with Harry Wilson and David Brooks capable of adding some further firepower to the Allen/Ramsey/Bale triumvirate. 

italy-v-czech-republic-international-friendly Roberto Mancini. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

The Welsh Dragon is in a group with a stable of dark horses. Italy are gathering momentum as many people’s quiet tip to win the tournament, as they have been revitalised under Roberto Mancini while still built on the bedrock of Chiellini and Bonucci. Consensus has Turkey as the official dark horse, who rarely turn up at major tournaments but seem to make the semi finals whenever they do. Major Tournament Law, meanwhile, dictates that Switzerland will make the last-16 and then go no further.

The Swiss will have racked up plenty of miles by that stage, though, with travel between Baku and Rome making them the group stage’s most travelled side. The differing levels of home advantage may distort the tournament, and if it does, our old pals Denmark will likely benefit with all of their Group B games staged in Copenhagen.

They are in a group with Belgium, who are approaching their last chance to mint a golden generation with some silverware.

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They must hope that Kevin de Bruyne is fit, Eden Hazard can forget he was ever a Real Madrid player, and that time has not already caught up with a creaking defence featuring Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen. 

These championships feature two debutants: Finland – who Irish fans will know from a pair of 1-0 defeats in the Nations League last year – and North Macedonia, the first side to profit from the wildcard spot for a side from the lowest-ranked Nations League D.

That win against Germany removes any lingering whipping boy fears, though, and they have also found themselves in the weakest group with Ukraine, Austria (who haven’t won a major tournament game since 1990!) and the Dutch, whose form under Frank de Boer is such that his brother Ronald declared that Johan Cruyff would be turning in his grave if he could see how this side are playing. 

Still, this is their first tournament appearance since 2014, and the soft draw should mask their shortcomings in the opening week at least.

Had Ireland qualified, we would have found ourselves in a group with Covid-bedeviled Spain, Zlatan-less Sweden, and Poland, who have hired Paulo Sousa as the previous manager couldn’t get along with Robert Lewandowski. But no, Slovakia are there instead and they promise to do nothing. 

The most significant Irish voice of the tournament will be, as ever, Roy Keane, who is back on ITV along with Ian Wright and Gary Neville.

Rio Ferdinand, Alan Shearer and Alex Scott form the BBC’s front-line, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of fresh blood punditry-wise this time around: Jurgen Klinsmann is back on the Beeb and, fabulously, Ally McCoist returns to ITV. Emma Hayes may prove to be an interesting addition to ITV’s coverage, however, while Peter Crouch has swapped over to the Beeb. 

There are no fresh additions to the RTE line-up, though Liam Brady and Didi Hamann will be back following a fairly lengthy Montrose absence, while Richie Sadlier, Damien Duff and Kevin Doyle will become very familiar faces over the next month.

Platini promised a great party eight years ago, and of course he was wrong about that too.  No, the tournament he intended to sprawl, stretch and yawn across a continent instead shirks beneath the looming spectre of the pandemic, though it sits slightly more boldly as fans make their voices heard once again. 

But this only goes to show football’s bewildering resilience: Platini’s initially zany idea, made madder by a pandemic, will still be compulsive viewing. 

The Steve McClaren Tempting Fate At a Euros Department 

Semi-finalists: Portugal, Turkey, Italy, France 

Winners: France 

Top Scorer: Antoine Griezmann 

Player of the Tournament: N’Golo Kante 

- Originally published at 7:05am

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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